I’ve written a three part buying guide for those interested in vintage French bikes based on my experiences over the last few years. Part one gives a general introduction and talks about things to consider before making a purchase, and part two goes into more detail on frames. This part focuses on what to look for (and avoid) in terms of Componenets.
Functional, reliable brakes are essential to safe and enjoyable riding. Most French vintage bikes come with centre pull Mafac type brakes or Weinmann type side pull brakes. These older brakes have a reputation for poor stopping power, a lot of this is down to their long, alloy arms which flex under load. They can give good enough performance if set up correctly with quality cables and pads (such as KoolStop Salmon pads or leather faced pads designed for chrome rims). As discussed below, the rim material also has a massive impact on braking.
Wheels are the most important part of a bike, and also one of the bug bears of vintage French bikes. Most period French bikes have chrome steel rims with textured breaking surfaces. These are heavy and offer poor braking performance (especially in the wet). Aluminium rims are much lighter and offer better braking, however until the 1980s they are only made for tubular (glue on) tyres.
Fitting and changing tubular tyres is much more complicated than clinchers (standard tyres with inner tubes), so they are not appropriate for all applications. They may be fine for a sportive bike, but would not be ideal for a commuter. One way to check if a wheel takes tubular or clincher tyres is to squeeze the tyre – a clincher will push back to show the wire bead, a tubular will only show it’s canvas base tape (you may have to let some air out to do this).
Vintage aluminium clincher wheels are less common but by no means rare and these are by far the most practical type of wheel. Unless your bike comes with a pair, this is an upgrade that should be seriously considered – be aware that this may cost more than the bike itself though! (If you’re on a tight budget you could consider changing just the front to improve braking).
Most French bikes have 700C (622 mm) wheels, the same size as modern hybrid and racing bikes, with the second most common size being 650B (584 mm). 650B has a bit of a cult following, and has recently been reborn as ‘27.5 Inch’ for mountain bikes. Despite this, tyres can be tricky to find and replacement wheels almost impossible. The size is however similar to 26 inch (559 mm) mountain bike wheels, so those inner tubes can be used. Depending on brake reach, it may be possible to convert a 650B bike to 26 inch wheels.
Hubs and Freewheels:
The second problem with vintage French wheels is that the hubs are usually made for obsolete French threaded freewheel cogs. French standard freewheel production stopped in the ‘80s as the British/ISO standard became universal. French freewheels are therefore only usually available in 5 or 6 speeds, and only ever with traditionally shaped cog teeth, meaning shifting is less smooth than modern Hyperglide type sprockets.
Another problem is that French freewheels are most commonly found with 14-24 teeth, with larger cogs being rare. This means it can be difficult to get a practical low gear for anything but flat roads. In addition, there are many types of French freewheel removal tool (at least 3 in common use, and none of them the same as the Shimano type). These are expensive and difficult to find (VAR is the only company that still makes them). Your local bike shop may have the right tool, but I wouldn’t count on it!
As with rims above, the problems associated with French freewheels can be fixed by replacing the wheelset for one compatible with ISO threaded freewheels.
Handlebars and Stems:
Most older French bikes come with steel drop handlebars or moustache handlebars and alloy quill stems. Stems tend to be on the short side (typically 70 mm), and drop bars on the narrow side (often 38cm c-t-c), making them less comfortable for prolonged road riding. The stem diameter and bar clamp size are slightly different to international standard, combinations can however be made to work with sanding or shimming. AVA brand stems have a risk of failure so should be replaced – they’re nicknamed ‘death stems’ – need I say more?